Saturday, January 21, 2017

The State of Beethoven's Piano Concertos

In the world of classical music, some concerts can be recent and have happened 20 years ago. We'll hope to be more recent, but some things are pillars of the musical universe simply because they are indispensable. Beethoven is universal because we have periods in our own lives when we are young, when we are middle aged, when we are no longer young, etc. and he speaks to all those aspects of our lives so well. All that is truly and intimately humanly possible in Western musical terms Beethoven accomplished with surprising eloquence which is still appreciated today. Here we'll bring to attention some recent extraordinary performances.
First Martha Argerich plays Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Opus 15 which he wrote when he was a young man of 26 or 27 and just beginning to have the first premonitions of his coming deafness. Arguably Argerich plays this as well as it can possibly be done, especially the second movement, which she sings along with the orchestra. The piano chosen is a Steinway D with a remarkably sweet tone. The cadenzas she uses are extended. The one to the third movement sounds familiar, the one for the first movement did not. This appeared in July of 2014 but probably dates from 2009 with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.
Second Martha Argerich plays Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Opus 19 which Beethoven wrote when he was between 17 and 19 years old and probably in Bonn, published after the first, so it became the second. In any event he gave it its first performance in Vienna when he was 24. It was a dazzling piece for a young man to play, many dashing episodic passages, most of it very young and lighthearted with a serious middle movement Argerich arguable again plays as well as it could ever be done. This performance from the 2009 season at Verbier Festival & Academy. Notice again the way Argerich sings the phrases in ways uncommon to most Beethoven playing, very effective all the way through. She has a nice Steinway D here as well: thinking it is in fact the same piano. Do I like the tone of this piano? Yes, indeed I do. She uses extended cadenzas here as well.
Third the Piano Concerto No. 3 in c minor, Opus 37 which dates from when Beethoven was rounding 30 years old and he himself introduced it to the world in his 33rd year. Here we hear from Fazil Say, building a reputation as one of the strong pianists of the day. He plays this with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra and this was placed on line in 2015, so the performance could have been very recent. The cadenza is very extended and unknown and might even be Say's own. He almost wants to make the link between Beethoven and Chopin or others of the romantics. It's effective and demonstrates Say's technique well. We have noticed the care and spirit given to playing the slow movements in these works and that's the case here as well. We have our modern pianos to thank for much of this; greater dynamics and sustain. They are capable of really singing the lines that Beethoven could have only imagined with the pianos available at his time; much of the power and depth of this music would have to wait until after Chopin had lived and died before we'd see modern pianos, imagine.
The fourth is, as many know my personal favorite among these pieces. For those who know it well, how about a chamber effort? Here is the Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Opus 58 which Beethoven wrote in 1805-6 when he was 35 or 36 but was first heard in public in one of the most important first concerts in all musical history. It took place on 22 December, 1808, as Beethoven turned 38. It marked his last appearance as soloist and certainly he was going deaf by then. It was at this concert that this concerto as well as his fifth and sixth symphonies and the Choral Fantasy were all played in one marathon performance for the ages at Vienna's Theater an der Wien, which dates from 1801 and still stands. We hear it here in a performance for piano and chamber strings, an arrangement by Vinzenz Lachner, performed at St. James's Paddington, London, probably soon before it appeared here in 2015. (We'd usually like to give performers credit where possible. Names were not posted as to who played what)
Beethoven's fifth piano concerto was later given the name “Emperor” which is superfluous. Anyway here is Seong-Jin Cho playing it with the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra. Yes, Beethoven's music is very popular in the far east. Here then is Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major“Emperor”, Opus 73 which Beethoven wrote in Vienna between 1809 and 1811. Beethoven turned 40 in 1810 the year both Chopin and Schumann were born. This concerto was first performed by Beethoven's patron and pupil, Archduke Rudolf (yes, nobles could and did play pianos and violins back then) on 13 January 1811 at the Palace of Prince Joseph Lobkowitz in Vienna, followed by a public concert later that year on 28 November at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig under Johann Philipp Christian Schulz, the soloist being Friedrich Schneider. This concerto remains one of those pieces that honestly if you manage to hear nothing else at a live classical music performance, it will really make an impression. Of course most of Beethoven's greatest works certainly give one an unforgettable impression when heard live; something like, “I can't believe it's real,” or something fathoms deeper is the usual result. Beethoven frequently surprises one with, “Gee, I had no idea he was so great,” or “after all, he was Beethoven.”

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